By Geri Coleman Tucker
Words have power. They can shape how kids with learning and attention issues feel about themselves. Here are nine things not to say, plus some suggested alternatives.
Avoid comparing your child’s challenges to what’s “normal.” If you use this word, you may imply your child is abnormal—even if you don’t mean to. Talking about what’s usually “expected” could be a more useful approach.
Try to choose words that are more positive than “disabled.” Even if he’s been identified as having a disability, the word “disabled” may send the wrong message. Instead, talk about your child’s abilities and strengths or even how he is differently able.
It is important, however, to talk to your child about what it means to have a disability and to encourage self-advocacy. Remind him that having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of.
Learning and attention issues are not illnesses. Try not to refer to them in this way. Your child isn’t sick. Share how you or someone you know of—maybe even a celebrity the child knows and admires—has worked around a learning or attention issue.
Try to avoid words like “no,” “don’t” or “stop.” They can prompt negative responses. Instead, use a more positive approach, such as: “Can you try this assignment another way?” This kind of redirection could have a positive influence on young and older children alike.
Offer criticism in a way that doesn’t deflate, and not as a standalone critique. Instead, sandwich criticism between two positives to help motivate your child. (“It’s great that you started your math homework right after school today. Tomorrow you need to spend an extra 15 minutes checking your answers. You’ve been working really hard lately, and I’m proud of you.”)
Try not to tell your child to “just try harder” or “this is easy” or “you’ll have to learn it on your own.” These phrases might imply your child is just being lazy—when it’s likely he’s actually working very hard. Help by guiding or reminding about a strategy he’s successfully used in the past.
Avoid describing your child as “suffering” from learning and attention issues. This word may communicate a feeling of weakness or hopelessness. Focus on talking about progress, accomplishments and the individual challenges your child has to work through.
Don’t suggest there’s a cure. Learning and attention issues are lifelong challenges. But do remind your child there are many things he, you, his teachers and doctors can do to work around what’s particularly difficult for him.
Avoid words like “handicapped,” “impaired” and “slow.” Such terms not only can be offensive but may also give the impression that your child’s difficulties are more severe than they really are. Focus plenty of attention on the areas where he shines so he can relish his successes.
When it comes to personal safety, kids with learning and attention issues may be more vulnerable than other kids. So how can you teach your child about “safe” and “unsafe” people? Start with these tips.
You want to help your child with learning and attention issues make the transition from summer to school. But it’s easy to send messages about going back to school that may hurt more than help. Here are some things you may find yourself saying—and what might work better.
Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for USA Today.
Bob Cunningham, M.A., Ed.M.
Jan 12, 2014
Jan 12, 2014
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I have a ten year old son and haven't really thought much about the title or name that I use when I discuss the problems with him. I usually just tell him that God has made him a little bit more unique than others. I never say the word autism or ADHD, though he knows that is what he has. He doesn't discount his disability but rather trys to understand his uniqueness.
@smmattis: Thank you for sharing your perspective as to why you prefer the term "difference." Your comment about the implications of the word "disability," reminded me of a t-shirt I've seen a few times (and love!). It says,"Don't DIS my ABILITY!"
Difference is much more positive & intrinsically satisfying than disability. Difference means created with a special purpose. Disabled just sounds broken. Disabled indicates not abled & sounds very heavy & doomed. Even Einstein could not speak till age 3 & was dyslexic but he obviously was not disabled. He had a phenomenal difference. Both my children revel in the idea they are different. My 8 & 9 year old are 2e Twice exceptional. One daughter has speech/developmental delay & in Gifted & Talented. My other daughter has Severe Convergence Insufficiency (eye track issues) & severe astigmatism) & Dyslexia & in Gifted & Talented.
@Windchild1: You make an interesting point about community and the legal rights that come with using the phrase "learning disability." How we or our kids identify themselves is such a personal choice. I will be interested to see what my children choose as they get older and for what reasons. Understood has chosen to use the phrase "learning and attention issues." You can read more about that choice in "Why We Call Them Learning and Attention Issues."
I think avoiding the term disabled reinforces the idea that there is something awful about having a disability. I'd rather see people be allowed to embrace this as part of who they are and redefine it in a powerful and positive way. They are part of a disability community and protected by law because the have a disability, not a "difference". Students on our campus work together for the common goal of "access and inclusion" across disability categories. They are richer for knowing each other and stronger together in their education and advocacy efforts.
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